One of my first posts for Scholastic was about my school’s Book of the Month program. Each month, every teacher in the building gets a new copy of a picture book, along with a letter explaining why it was chosen and how it might be used to start a class discussion. We continued that program this year, and I have seen our school continue to flourish as a community of readers.
The connections are amazing when every student in the building has guaranteed access to even a short list of texts. Not only that, but teachers are able to plan together in a variety of ways without worrying about how they’ll stagger their lessons to share the lone copy of a favorite book. Now that we’re two years into this Book of the Month Club, each teacher has a stack of 20 texts that are common to every classroom, and students are able to discuss those texts deeply. They can pair up with other classes to show off their deep thinking, and any one of those books can be used to spark their discussion. I don’t think I even understood how valuable it would be until I saw those conversations happen across all grade levels.
When I choose the texts that we will use for the Book of the Month deliveries, I try to keep a couple of things in mind. First, I consider the audience. We are a PreK–5 campus, which means that the audience for these read-alouds will range from three-year-olds to 11-year-old 5th graders. This is obviously a wide range, and it can be a challenge to find a book that will appeal to all of them. I tend to lean toward books with fairly simple text but a strong theme. This way, the adaptation for each grade level is made in the depth of the conversations.
Secondly, I consider the “hot topics” in our school. I try to choose books that allow teachers to reinforce the character lessons they’ve taught (trustworthiness, respect, etc.), as well as books with characters facing the issues present in many of our students’ home lives. Keeping this in mind makes me worry much less about the age range.
Last week, Rachel Scott, a 2nd grade teacher in my building, sent me a message that said, “Remind me to tell you about what happened when I read this month’s book!” Our book for May is Our Tree Named Steve, written by Alan Zweibel and illustrated by David Catrow. It’s written in the form of a letter from a father to his children. He’s writing to them to let them know that their beloved tree, which they saved when the homebuilders cleared their lot and has served in many roles as they’ve grown up, has been badly damaged by a storm.
I was hoping Mrs. Scott would tell me about a conversation her students had about a time they lost something or about a time they had to give bad news. Maybe, just maybe, she would even tell me about some text-to-text connections they’d made between Our Tree Named Steve and Tess’s Tree, which was our December selection.
My expectations, as it turned out, were far, far too low. Mrs. Scott told me that she had read the book to her class on what seemed like an ordinary Tuesday. She didn’t know that this sweet little picture book would affect her the way it did, and she certainly didn’t know how it would affect her students. As she read Our Tree Named Steve aloud to her class, Mrs. Scott began to cry. The book has a sad, but hopeful tone, and depending on the day, it could certainly bring tears to anyone’s eyes. In some classrooms, tears from the teacher might turn everything upside down. It wouldn’t be so surprising to hear giggles or awkward silence, but in this community of readers, Mrs. Scott looked up to see those very same tears in the eyes of many little boys and girls.
Mrs. Scott, like all of the teachers at my campus, has worked hard all year to create a safe place in her classroom. Students in every grade level are invited to share their thinking often, and they are taught how to respond to each other’s thinking in kind ways, regardless of whether or not they agree. We want students to feel like they are free to react to texts in personal ways, and then we want them to share those reactions without fear of ridicule.
The reactions in this 2nd grade class were definitely personal. Students felt safe to react to the text honestly. Mrs. Scott knew something special was happening here, so she invited her students to grab their reader’s notebooks and respond in a way that made sense to them. I peeked in their notebooks and saw many text-to-self connections and strong feelings.
Later that week, Mrs. Scott allowed me to sit in on a debriefing session about Our Tree Named Steve. She shared her own notebook entry about her reactions to the text, and she explained to them why she wrote what she did. Then she invited her students to do the same. Again, the safety in her room was evident. Students shared freely and added on to their entries as the conversation grew.
The students made connections to their own lives and to other texts. (Yes, Tess’s Tree came up several times.) They talked about how the illustrations made them feel a certain way, and they discussed the use of certain colors in picture books. They even talked about why the illustrator chose to include hints of yellow on an otherwise very dreary page. “I think he put yellow, because he wants us to know that the sun is about to shine through. Like, no matter what, the sun is always going to come back,” said David.
There is a line in Our Tree Named Steve that says, “Through the years Mom and I have tried to show you, in a world filled with strangers, the peace that comes with having things you can count on and a safe place to return to after a hard day or a long trip.”
When I look back on a year of reading instruction and think about what really matters, I don’t think about specific texts or even certain skills. I always come back to the idea that reading is thinking. We want our students to grow into real-life readers and lifelong thinkers. In order for that to happen, we certainly hope to build a community they can count on and a safe place to return.
The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds
Vashti has given up on drawing, until her teacher frames and displays the dot she made in frustration. “I can draw a better dot than that!” she says. This sweet story shows how just one person believing in your abilities can help you move mountains.
“Let’s Get a Pup!” Said Kate by Bob Graham
Kate thinks her family needs a puppy, and her parents agree. They take a trip to the shelter, where they see two dogs that would fit perfectly. They can’t take both, so they decide on Dave, a hyper but lovable pup. They have second thoughts upon returning home, so they go back to the shelter to adopt sweet, older Rosie as well.
“The Trouble with Dogs...” Said Dad by Bob Graham
This sequel to “Let’s Get a Pup!” Said Kate shows the family struggling to deal with Dave’s poor puppy behavior. They love him, but he’s a bit out of control, so they hire a trainer to come deal with him. What they don’t anticipate is how Dave’s sweet spirit might be affected.
City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems
This is a classic story about an unlikely friendship. Mo Willems uses the seasons to show how a new friendship between City Dog and Country Frog grows and changes. The predictable pattern of the book is appreciated by all ages. Spoiler alert: Winter is likely to make you cry!
Our Tree Named Steve by Alan Zweibel
Dad is writing to let his kids know that their beloved tree has been badly damaged by a storm. He recounts all of the memories they’ve shared with Steve and explains to them the importance of a safe place “in a world filled with strangers.”
Max’s Words by Kate Banks
Max’s brothers both have collections. Benjamin collects stamps, and Karl collects coins, and neither of them is willing to share with Max. When he decides to start his own collection of words, his brothers don’t understand, so they make fun of him. When he begins to use his words to make meaning, he teaches his brothers a valuable lesson.
Tess’s Tree by Jess M. Brallier
Tess loves her tree, but when a storm damages it, the tree needs to be cut down. Tess is not willing to say good-bye so easily, so she holds a memorial for the tree, where she learns that it meant something to many more people than she originally thought.
Dumpy La Rue by Elizabeth Winthrop
Dumpy La Rue is a pig who knows what he wants to do. Dumpy loves to dance, and although his family and the entire barnyard desperately try to talk him out of it, he doesn’t listen. They even resort to unkindness, but Dumpy dances on anyway. This book is a powerful metaphor for believing in yourself.
Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth
The heroine of this story is searching for something beautiful in a neighborhood filled with less-than-lovely sites. She learns the word beautiful in school and thinks, “when you have it, it makes your heart happy.” She then decides to go out and create something beautiful on her own.
A Pig Parade Is a Terrible Idea by Michael Ian Black
This book is full of all the reasons why you might think a pig parade would be smart, but why it is, in fact, a terrible idea. This silly book is sure to make you giggle, and as a bonus, it has a great structure for older students who are trying to prove their point in essay writing.